Their Finest Hour and a Half is one of those books I just saw displayed in the library and thought it looked good, so I grabbed it. Like Sarah Waters’ The Night Watch, it looks at the home front in Britain during WWII, specifically an eighteen-month period in 1940-1, and uses disparate characters’ stories, briefly brought together by their collective work on a wartime film. Unlike The Night Watch, which was told backwards and was quite dark, Their Finest Hour and a Half is humorous and played in real-time. From the cover you’d be forgiven for thinking the whole of the narrative was going to follow Catrin Cole, a spirited young woman employed at an ad agency at the beginning of the book, married to a taciturn painter; she eventually helps write the script of the aforementioned wartime film. The author Lissa Evans also gives us the juicy story of Ambrose Hilliard, a film star of the 1920s and ‘30s who still wants leading man material and doesn’t believe in aging gracefully; in tone, he’s very similar to Mark Gatiss’ Lucifer Box. In fact, I almost get the sense Lissa Evans liked Ambrose so much, she wanted to take the narrative away from Catrin to make the story Ambrose’s. In any case, the third character is Edith Beadmore, who fascinatingly is a seamstress at Madame Tussaud’s; unfortunately, not much time is spent describing this interesting line of work as Edith, as an unmarried woman dependent on relatives’ charity, is displaced because of the Blitz.
A lot of care and research has gone into the book and is not represented in an ostentatious way. Because Catrin is Welsh (and so, I think, is the author), there are some good Welsh jokes. In fact, even the blackest humor is tempered by silliness, which is a nice change for a wartime book. Of course, the most enjoyable part of the book is the metafictional quality: a book about people writing films, a book about people acting through films and plays, and the way the narrative swoops in and out is very cinematic. It’s great fun, not least because of the extracts of scripts—from the feature film, from Ministry of Information shorts, from period advertising. Very charming. Catrin even gets the chance to rewrite her own story by typing out of page of dialogue about how it should have gone:
Oh, a hint—you mean six oysters, a candle in a bottle and a gypsy violinist sawing away at ‘Last Rose of Sorrento’. And if you’d had all that, then what would you have done?
I don’t know. But I wouldn’t have smacked you in the chest and said ‘Let’s forget it ever happened.’
The book was longlisted for the Orange Prize, and you can see why.